Category Archives: Writing Conferences

Dragon*Con 2015 — Memorable Moments


300 BC

I attended my fourth Dragon*Con this past weekend after a two-year hiatus and it didn’t disappoint. The event – dubbed “the wildest geek convention on the planet” by TripAdvisor – drew 65,000 fantasy and scifi fans to downtown Atlanta.

Sherrilyn Kenyon and I.

In honor of the annual Labor Day weekend spectacle, The Writing Well is sharing a few pearls of wisdom from some of the literary set of speakers who I heard present on author and writing panels (see last section of post).

Touching Tributes to Nimoy, Lee

Before going there, I want to pay homage to some of the entertainment panels I attended this year. As a fan of classic Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I was thrilled to attend the tribute to Leonard Nimoy and iconic British actor Christopher LeeChristopher

Lee, who passed away in February and in June of this year, respectively. A few interesting notes about Lee I learned: he spoke seven languages, made a heavy metal album and was the only Lord of the Rings cast member who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (and read the books every year).

As for Nimoy, I could devote an entire blog to my favorite scifi actor. He was much more than the token alien cast opposite Captain Kirk on Trek; he was an accomplished director, photographer and poet with seven books under his name. He touched all of those outcasts in the world who were nerdy before nerdy was cool.

He also had a record album produced named appropriately, Highly Illogical. He was well liked and respected by his cast members – he was accepting of certain cast members who were not well liked.

He hated being typecast as Spock in the early years but grew to appreciate the character and what Spock symbolized well beyond the series– a half-human and half-Vulcan who struggled to balance his warring halves and to belong. His final tweet to followers before his death on Feb. 27 reflected his wisdom and humanity: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” He signed the tweet off with “LLAP,” a nod to his famous Spock moniker, “live long and prosper.”

Snodgrass and Star Trek TNG
Vendor_StarTrekArtworkI also attended Melinda Snodgrass’s highly entertaining session on her early work as a screenwriter for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A good friend to author George R.R. Martin, Melinda got her break when she penned “A Measure of a Man” on spec.

Many fans consider it one of the greatest episodes featuring the android character, Data, as well as one of the best of Star Trek – the inspiration for the episode was the famous Dred Scott case. Data goes on trial and Captain Picard must prove he is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.

“Trek had never shot an episode like this that was very dialogue-heavy – it was a court room drama. When they finished shooting, it was 13 minutes too long so they cut 13 minutes out of it,” recalled Snodgrass. She was snuck a copy of the director’s cut with the full footage. She kept it until CBS Television decided to do a Blu-ray version of the series and requested her copy back.

One of the scenes in the extended version was between Picard and his first officer, Wil Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes where the two men were fencing. While Patrick Stewart was an accomplished fencer, Frakes wasn’t given time to learn technique for the scene and had to settle for doing the voiceover as an acting double fought Picard.

“I like the scene because I always thought Riker was overlooked and not given proper stature. He often ended up seeming weak,” Snodgrass said, pointing out how the character turned down the chance to command his own ship, preferring to remain on the Enterprise. “I wanted to see some rivalry. Jonathan nailed it – he said, ‘I’m going to beat you. I’m going to win.’ I like what they did in that moment. There was some power there.”

Six - BSGThe long queue line was worth it to attend the celebrity panel of “Battlestar Galactica,” the 2004 to 2009 remake of the 70s hit by Ronald D. Moore. Who doesn’t love Cylons – including BattlestarGalacticathe six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?


A few of my favorite costumes:

StarWars_Beauty Outlander The ShiningDragonCon_Constume2 DragonCon_Costume Avatar Mother and ChildSuperman_WonderWomanWeepingAngel_Dr Who

Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

#1 “I think my English literature degree set me back two years – telling a story is not the kind of thing you learn in an English class.” — Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files


Laurell K. Hamilton

#2If I over-outline it takes away the impetus for me to write.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, author of The Anita Blake Series

#3 The characters I have the most fun with are the ones whose views I never share.” – Peter F. Hamilton, Dragon*Con Literary Guest of Honor


Carol Barrowman

Carol Barrowman

#4 “When you’re done with your novel, put the whole book on a page, then a paragraph and then a tagline; you should be able to talk about your book in 30 seconds.” – Carole Barrowman, co-author of children’s book series, Hollow Earth, with brother, John Barrowman

#5 “I love drawing on real people. Writers are eavesdroppers and peeping toms (without looking through blinds). A lot of my characters are often amalgamations of real people. I knew a Quaker and I made him a pornographer who does snuff films. He loved it!” — Jonathan Maberry

#6 “[When using beta readers] one of the things I found helpful is to have them assign ABCD to passages – A is for awesome, B is for bored, C is for confused and D is for don’t care.” – A.J. Huntley

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

#“7How do you write realistic dialogue? How do you make it ‘real?’ Think of what the world would say – eavesdropping on people talking. One trick: they don’t talk in compete sentences – words drop.” – Lane Skye, independent filmmaker

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

#8 “Story begins with a character who wants something – you boil it down to what they want most and what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? And it does.” – Lou Anders

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

#9 “Books are organic. I allow for organic growth – which often calls for changes in storytelling.”
– Jonathan Maberry

#10 “Characters come to life when I know their voice – I know how they will respond to certain situations.” – Naomi Novik

#11 “Story has to come first.” – Delilah Dawson

#12 “Never give up.” – Sherrilyn Kenyon



Duke University Couple Delves into ‘Genius of Dogs’


Brian signs our copy of The Genius of Dogs during the 2013 Decatur Book Festival.

Ever wondered how smart your dog is? As a proud owner of a rambunctious golden doodle, I have, and that’s why my family and I stopped by Brian Hare’s recent appearance at the Decatur Book Festival, where we heard him present and received an autographed copy of his 2013 book, The Genius of Dogs.

Brian, an associate professor in Duke University’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, co-wrote the book with his wife, Vanessa Woods, a research scientist in Duke’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and an award-winning journalist.

According to a 2010 interview in The New York Times, they met in 2004 when Vanessa was volunteering at a chimp sanctuary in Uganda. Brian was there, examining chimpanzees’ capacity for cooperation and sharing. He was invited to continue his work in the Congo with bonobos, humanity’s closest ape relations and unique in the animal kingdom for not killing one another. Newly engaged, the couple went to the Congo as a research team, and the culmination of that adventure was Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo, named to Scientific American’s Top 10 books for June 2010 and recipient of the Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award 2011.

The Genius of DogsIn his opening remarks at the festival, Brian credited his wife’s writing abilities with the book being an engaging read.  Since its publication earlier this year, The Genius of Dogs has garnered widespread praise:

  • Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire, applauded Hare’s “game-changing research” into the canine mind, which has illuminated ‘the natural history of all intelligence.”
  • John Grogan, author of Marley & Me and The Longest Trip Home, said this: “Thoroughly researched and written in the likable voice of a brainy scientist sitting at your kitchen table, The Genius of Dogs is a fascinating look at what goes on between the ears of the animals we share our lives with.”

Two years in the making, The Genius of Dogs included reviewing more than a thousand studies. It pulls from research at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, which Brian founded to better understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. The couple work at the center together — a place that “offers the cheapest tuition and best acceptance rate at Duke,” they joke on the website.

Dognition-Two-CupsRecently, Brian and Vanessa joined other experts in dog cognition to launch, a website that thousands of dog owners have accessed for a fee to download tools to measure the intelligence of their dogs, who are “astoundingly good at reading our gestures and learning words,” Brian told WIRED science writer Greg Miller in a feature published in February 2013. Dog owners report their results online, which gives researchers like Brian broad-based data to better understand and help dogs.

Today, The Writing Well asked Vanessa and Brian to share highlights of their hare-woods129colorwriting collaboration and what they hope comes from their work in dog cognition summarized so well in their book.

Q.   What prompted you to write The Genius of Dogs? What makes this book unique in the literature of animal intelligence/cognition?

Never has there been a more exciting time for dog lovers. The research over the last decade has been so exciting that we want to share it with everyone. Before now, there has not been one place where people can find out the latest in dog research – they would have to rely on media reports or read the scientific papers. We wanted to synthesize the research and organize it in a way that people could get the most out of it.

Also, although there are a lot of dog lovers, most people don’t realize how important dogs have been for thinking about our own evolution, and how we became humans. We wanted people to know that their best friends are not just cute pets, they are part of a much bigger picture. Dogs may help us understand ourselves.

Most of all, we wanted to give dogs credit. They have developed their own unique genius that is unparalleled by any other animal on the planet. Finding out how dogs got their smarts has been a fascinating journey, one that we want to share. We hope both ends of the leash will benefit from what we’ve discovered.

Q. This was a collaboration between two scientists who happen to be husband and wife — how did you complement one another?

Brian’s strength is definitely the science, while Vanessa’s is writing about the science in an entertaining manner. Our editor did not know how a married couple could write a book together (and whether we would survive). Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter famously said writing a book together almost ruined their marriage. The biggest conflict we had was Brian’s love for superfluous adjectives and Vanessa’s delight in deleting large sections of Brian’s work.

We tried sitting together and writing, but that didn’t work. Eventually we came to an arrangement where even though we were both using the same computer and working on the same chapters, we were never at the computer at the same time, and we would email the versions back and forth. As to if we would do it again? Ask us in five years.

Q.  What one finding from your book surprised each of you the most?

Brian: While we are occasionally advised to be the ‘top dog’ and dominate our dogs in order to win respect and obedience, it seems that dogs don’t follow a leader who acts like the big bad wolf. While some feral dog groups (dogs who live without human interference) have a dominance hierarchy that predicts priority to resources such as food and mating partners, this hierarchy is not as strict as in wolves. In feral dogs, the pack does not follow the most dominant dog, instead they follow the dog with the most friends.

Vanessa: It’s a battle that’s been raging since Garfield first pushed Odie off a counter top – how could dogs possibly be smarter than superior felines? Crafty as cats may be, they have yet to out- compete a dog in a cognitive experiment. As one example, a dog or a cat watched while an experimenter hid a reward in one of four boxes. Dogs remembered where the food was for four times longer than cats. But dog owners shouldn’t be too smug. Dogs were outsmarted on a similar memory problem by rats.


Our family dog, Missy, the newest recruit for Dognition.

Q.     What do you hope happens as a result of your book’s publication?

One of the most important things we hope people take away is that their dog is cognitive. This means they aren’t mindless learning machines, or slaves to our every whim. Dogs have the ability to flexibly and spontaneously make inferences, something far more impressive than a trained trick. Some people might get frustrated with their dog’s disobedience. We hope after reading our book, that they might realize that sometimes it is because their dog is too smart, not too stupid to obey them.

Also, we hope they take away that there is not just one type of intelligence. We hope that people will be motivated to find their dog’s unique intelligence, and perhaps their own unique intelligence. What is true for dogs should be true for people too.  Most of all, people should know that is their dog is a genius!

To learn more about Brian and Vanessa’s work understanding man’s best friend, visit the Dognition website.



Ariel Lawhon on Premise, Plot and Pacing

Part III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

ArielLawhonToday, The Writing Well concludes its three-part recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference with author Ariel Lawhon, co-founder of the online book club, She Reads, whose debut novel, The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, will be published in January.

The mother of four admits that she is addicted to research (“For me, it’s a way to procrastinate,”) she teased the audience. Her highly engaging talk covered the three Ps of writing: premise, plot and pacing.

How do you define premise? It’s “your story described in one line.”

Why is it so important, you may ask?

Ariel noted that it’s the seed from which your story grows, explaining that creating a strong premise line helps you focus on your story and also to quickly explain it to anyone, whether it be a journalist, an agent or a publisher.

“Writing a premise line forces you to think about the most important parts of your story — what is the story about? What does she do? What happens in the end?  You can’t really move forward unless you know this. You know your story innately so you’re not wandering.”

TheWife,TheMaid,The MistressAriel shared her own premise line for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress: “My story is about three women who know the truth about a judge and they choose not to tell,” said Ariel.

Set in New York City, her novel reconstructs one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Justice Joseph Crater in 1930 – as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best. On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulated about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, Judge Crater stepped into a cab and vanished without a trace.

Ariel offered a simple formula for creating a strong Premise line:   Character + Action = Outcome, and then shared three contemporary examples:

         The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family (character) takes revenge on men who shot his father (action) and becomes the new Godfather (outcome).”

         Harry Potter: “A boy discovers he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians.

         The Help: “Three women write a book about domestic servitude and expose a system of racism.”

JohnTrubyAnatomyofStoryAriel then addressed plot – defined as what happens in your book.  A good novel, she noted, must include seven structural components. These key steps of story structure, from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, are:

  1. Weakness – hero cannot be perfect; he must be hurting someone at the beginning of the book
  2. Desire – what your hero wants
  3. Opponent – the person who keeps your hero from reaching his goal
  4. Plan – how the hero goes about achieving his goal
  5. Battle – the final conflict between hero and opponent
  6. Self Revelation – when the hero sees his moral weakness
  7. New Equilibrium – when the hero returns to normal – but changed – his desire achieved

 A story’s plot creates a lot of different questions. Pacing, advised Ariel, is the rate in which you answer those questions for your reader. A great guidepost for pacing? Begin your scenes with a bang and end them with a cliffhanger to keep your readers off guard, Ariel said.

“The key to pacing is that as soon as you answer one question, you need to ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader is motivated to keep reading,” she added. All the small questions must be connected to the big question.

“It’s all about withholding – parceling out information in small pieces,” she said.

game-of-thrones-season-4During the Q&A, she fielded questions such as “Is there such a thing as too much conflict?” She cited George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, Game of Thrones as an example of a story with a lot of conflict among a huge cast of characters.

“Conflict has to be planned. It’s important when writing to be very specific with who is in conflict and why,” she concluded.



Marybeth Whalen on Voice – ‘The Game Changer’ in Novel Writing

Part II of III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference


Author panelists (L to R) Kimberly Brock, Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon tackled different aspects of writing craft — setting, voice and plot — during the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.

In today’s recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference, The Writing Well introduces North Carolina novelist Marybeth Whalen, a wife and proud mother of six, whose penned four Southern novels, her latest, The Wishing Tree, published this past spring. Three of her last four novels are set in Sunset Beach, N.C.

“I try to tell a love story all centered around one object unifying two people, usually against all odds,” says Marybeth, who admits that “voice” – the unique way you tell a story — comes to her naturally.


“Every one of us has a unique voice. Mine is a little more direct. I’m not real flowery in my voice. One of the best things friends tell me when they read my book is ‘I could hear you. I knew this by you. It comes out.’”

During her presentation, Marybeth shared with conference attendees highlights of a recent blog post she penned celebrating her son turning 21.

“When I look at him, I don’t see the man he is now; I see that little boy in the car seat we brought home. I see that little seven-year-old boy who couldn’t stop shaking the night he came back from Washington D.C. saying, ‘Mom, I can’t explain it, but that city is in my blood!’  I see that 15-and-a-half year old who could not wait to get those car keys… get in our car and drive away. I also see my 21-year-old son, who next week will ship off to the Navy. I see the whole arc of who he is.”

She explains that as writers, we bring all of who we are to our characters – tapping our experiences and feelings from childhood through adulthood.

“When I write an older character, I imagine the woman I’ll…be.  All those voices are already within each and every one of us; it’s just trusting that on the page.”

She quoted Storyfixer and writing coach Larry Brooks, who once said, “Novels don’t sell because of writing voice, but they do get rejected because of writing voice. What sells are great stories told well.”

“Voice is the game changer. Yes, plot and pacing are important; setting is so important. But, I think it’s that authentic writing voice that wraps its fingers around our heart and makes us feel we know this character.”

She cited the character of Lily in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as a wonderful example of voice done well.  “I loved her, I rooted for her, I cheered for her. It wasn’t just the circumstances of the story, it was her heart, her view of the world – that’s voice.”

Voice Writing Tips

marybeth_whalenMarybeth offered these tips to strengthen voice we all can employ in our writing:

  • Listen to the voices around you. Notice accents, inflections, vocal tics, mannerisms when they talk. You don’t want characters to just be talking; they should be doing something as they talk. 
  • Write from the deepest truth and your deepest emotion. Ask yourself, what is most shameful thing – the one thing you least want to write about or share? We’d feel so exposed.  You need to write about that thing that keeps you up at night – say that thing you are so afraid to say. That’s what will make your voice authentic.
  • Write what you love. Knowledge can be learned; passion can’t be.  Think about the emotions that flow from that passion – and tap into that. 
  • When reading other authors note the different voices that come through in the writing. Why does that voice work? You can learn a lot from reading others. Or, if it didn’t work for you, why?
  • Don’t overwrite or attempt tricks to baffle the reader.  Say it plainly.
  • Picture your reader. Don’t write as if they’re strangers. Write as if you’re writing to a friend. I write to other moms / women who are thinking about dinner, normal stuff. You have to have a real audience in mind.
  • Love the voice you have been given. Recognize that your voice is individual, authentic, original. Writing details in the most natural way you can – it’s the details you notice. Let those details come through. 
  • Don’t try to copy other writers’ voices.  Your writing should sound like no one else could have written it. The way you talk, your life experiences, whether you married or had children, all of that should be part of your voice.

Indispensable Tool: James Scott Bell’s Voice Journal

Conflict and SuspenseFor homework, Marybeth provided attendees with a “Voice Journal” handout courtesy of James Scott Bell’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense, calling it one of most effective writing tools she’s ever used.

This free-form, stream-of-consciousness journal is all written in a character’s voice, from writing prompts you introduce. She advised us to write at least five to ten minutes without stopping, letting the character speak for him or herself. In the early stages of your novel, the voice journal will help you “hear” the characters talk in a way that is unique to them. During writing, you may stop and ask what a character is thinking or feeling about the story. This deepens the emotions in the character and helps solidify and intensify conflict. 

You should have voice journals for all your major characters and when your stuck, start a new voice journal for the point-of-view character and ask him or her some questions about what’s going on. Ask your character:

         What do you want?

         Why do you want it?

         Who or what stands in your way?

         What will happen if you don’t get what you want?

         What will happen if you do?

         What is your greatest strength?

         What is your greatest weakness?

         What do you fear the most?

         What makes you angry?

         Who did you admire growing up?

         Who did you fear the most?

         How do you handle frustration?

         Are you an extrovert or an introvert, pessimist or optimist?

         How easy is it for you to trust people?

         Do you tend to keep things or get rid of them?

         Do you have any secrets?

         Do you like taking risks?

         What is your favorite food?

         What stands in the way of your happiness right now?

         If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be?

         What would you like to be remembered for?

         How do you think other people see you?

  How do you write in your own unique voice? What techniques help you bring that authenticity out in your characters? Share your experiences here, and be sure to check out Marybeth’s author blog.


Kimberly Brock on Writing Setting: Four Tips

 Part I of III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers ConferenceKimberlyBrock

Kimberly Brock, author of The River Witch (2012, Bellebooks/Bell Bridge Books) and recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award 2013, was one of three talented Southern authors who spoke on honing the craft of novel writing at the Decatur Book Festival’s Writers Conference earlier this month.

The panel I attended also featured fellow Southern authors, Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen. All three of these talented storytellers shared what they consider their strengths as writers: Kimberly spoke about setting, Ariel tackled plot and Marybeth explored voice.  I’m excited to share highlights of each of their presentations beginning today with Kimberly’s insights on setting.

SheReadsHeaderBefore I do, however, I want to applaud what these women are doing to “pay it forward” to other novelists.  Marybeth and Ariel co-founded the “She Reads Book Club” in September 2009 to share the books they loved with the largest audience possible. Kimberly recently has lent her support by managing the club’s blog network. Her debut novel was chosen for the She Reads’ June 2012 Book Club selection.

RiverWitchSet against the backdrop of the southern Appalachian foothills and the Georgia Sea Islands, The River Witch tells the story of Roslyn Byrne, a professional ballerina devastated in body and spirit following an accident, who seeks refuge for the summer on Manny’s Island in Georgia. While she hungers for solitude, Roslyn finds so much more on this mystical island, including the key to healing. The Huffington Post’s film critic Jackie Cooper provides an excellent book synopsis, but he also noted how well this Georgia native crafted setting in her story.

“Brock does a masterful job of giving a sense of moist habitation to the location of the story. You can almost feel the wet grass underfoot and hear the movement of the alligators as they stalk their prey,” he wrote.

Cooper isn’t alone in his praise. “This is one of those books written so well you actually hear and smell and feel everything as though you’re actually there,” writes Amazon reviewer Gin Bryant.

To Kimberly, setting is all about the details. “It’s setting that builds your story world… and your reader’s perception of your character,” she told a room full of writers in Decatur earlier this month.

Kimberly began her remarks first by sharing her own storytelling antics as a child. In an attempt to get attention, she told her impressionable classmates how her “great-great granddaddy – a Cherokee Indian — haunted her and other pale skins.”

In describing her ancestor’s presence in the hilly pine woods abutting her elementary school’s playground, Kimberly soon had the children terrified that the ghost of her great-great grandfather was after them.

“I had them all going. The kids wouldn’t sleep. If it rained there was terror. I had to apologize to the whole school and tell them that the ghost of my great-great granddaddy wasn’t after them,” recalls Kimberly, who used this memory to underscore the importance of creating setting in storytelling. 

Setting, she says, is “the sly old man behind the curtain,” to borrow an inference from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s the part of your story that creates the world where your characters live. Not only that, setting fills your story world and it moves your story along.”

Kimberly adds that your characters are forced to deal with the setting you place them in — whether they know it or not.

“One character is going to interact with that setting completely different than another character.”

She believes a strength of Southern literature is its focus on setting – “Southern stories are full of poetry and attachment to the land.  We are affected by where we are in a place and time,” she explains.

Details, she adds, are the hardest things to get right in a story.

“Details are what take the most time to write, because for every detail we include, we have to discard all the hundreds of choices we could have made to include one telling snippet that reveals the most.”

Ready to create settings that your readers will lose themselves in? Here are four techniques Kimberly uses, and you should, too:

1. Reveal setting through action – Let your description unfold as a character moves through the scene. Consider which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly. Let your character encounter those details interactively. Use action verbs to set the scene. “Walking through” a description breaks the details into bite-sized nuggets, and scatters those nuggets throughout the scene so that the reader never feels overwhelmed or bored.

2. Reveal setting through a character’s level of experience – What your character knows will directly influence what she sees. Different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the setting.

3. Reveal setting through the emotions of your character – What we see is profoundly influenced by what we feel. The same should be true for our characters. Filtering a scene through a character’s feelings can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”

4. Reveal setting through the senses

         Visual – we make decisions and take action based on what we see.

         Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear (music, the sound of a person’s voice, the whistle of a train, tone of voice).

         Smell evokes memories (baking, perfume, new-car leather, the odor of wet dog).

         Touch evokes a sensory response.

         As in real life, “taste” images should be used sparingly and appropriately.

What techniques work for you when writing setting? Share them here, and reach out to Kimberly on her author page, where you can check out her book trailer or download a book club discussion guide for The River Witch.

Linda Marsa: Bringing the Reality of a Warming Planet to Life on the Page


Books, books, books. Labor Day weekend 2013 for me was all about celebrating authors and their gift to us — storytelling in all its forms.

I attended my first Decatur Book Festival, beginning Friday with the festival’s well-organized Writers Conference, which I will blog about in more detail soon. It concluded with two great Science track author talks on Sunday, including a presentation by Linda Marsa, author of Fevered:  Why A Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves.

This is not an abstract, jargon-filled climate change book; it’s a no-holds-barred examination of what she calls the “most critical issue affecting our very survival in the coming century.”

In more than two decades as a journalist, Linda considers this book to be the most important story she’s ever covered. I believe her.

Linda and I have a common passion – public health writing. I’ve spent 13 years as a freelance writer for CDC; she’s a contributing editor for Discover, where she regularly reports on science, medicine and health trends. We met “virtually” earlier this year when I was looking for editorial help with a client project.

Not surprisingly, Linda’s major reporting focus has been on climate change. Her December 2010 Discover Magazine cover story, “The Hot Zone — A Warming Planet’s Rising Tide of Disaster,” was the springboard for her 2012 book, The Future of Water:  Going to Extremes, that dealt with climate change in Australia and was selected for inclusion in the anthology, “The Best American Science Writing, 2012.”

“I don’t have a science background at all–I was an English major in college back in the Stone Age when women didn’t go into science,” Linda tells me. “I fell into science writing about 20 years ago and discovered I had a knack for it. I think my lack of science background has been a blessing and a curse. Because I have to laboriously unpack the material to understand it myself, I think I might be better at explaining it then someone who is steeped in it and writes above the head of the average reader. But it can be difficult to decipher–and be accurate!–when you don’t have that background.”

Linda’s devotion to getting the science right while crafting a narrative that engages people — is her gift in Fevered. She balances expert interviews from leading scientists, climatologists and public health practitioners, with real-world examples of climate change’s disruptive force pulled from today’s news headlines.

One of her more credible sources is not an environmental scientist, but a British physician who has devoted his career to the “silent emergency” of infant and maternal mortality in poor countries. Dr. Anthony Costello, head of University College of London’s Institute for Global Health, said, “Climate change is the most important public health threat of the 21st Century,” and predicted, “Unless this challenge finds it sway to the top of the international health agenda, this century could be a disaster movie without a happy ending.”

The message in Fevered is indisputable: Global Warming is here and is the biggest threat to human survival.  “Rising temperatures could trigger pestilence, drought-induced food shortages, raging firestorms, massive migrations, political instability and wars,” writes Linda.

During her talk, this California author observed that most Americans see Global Warming as an abstract concept — “something that is going to happen in 20 or 30 years.” But, it’s already happening and not in far-flung places but right here at home, from the hot weather and intense rains and hurricanes exploding across the country to the emergence of exotic diseases such as Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome that claimed two lives of people who visited Yosemite National Park last summer, and West Nile Virus, where more than 1,400 people have died in the U.S. since it was first detected in New York City in 1999. Rising temperatures that trap carbonates in the air has also led to spiraling rates of asthma and allergies, as well as spikes in heatstroke-related deaths.

A key culprit for the heating planet is no surprise: the staggering amount of CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere. Linda noted that the planet has headed up 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, a very significant development, as Linda shares below in an expanded Q&A interview with The Writing Well.


Author Linda Marsa right before her talk at the Decatur Book Festival.

Q. What locations did you visit to help understand the effects of global warming?

I want to various places around the country that are already feeling the effects of a warming planet, including New Orleans, New York, California’s Central Valley, the SF Bay Area, and Long Beach. I also went to cities that are pioneering model programs that will smooth the path to a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future, like Vancouver, Seattle, and Orange County, California, which is a world leader in water management.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of working on Fevered?

There were two very challenging aspects. I had to come up to speed on some very complicated science, including climatology, atmospheric physics, oceanic currents, farming techniques, water management history and strategies, and migratory patterns of disease vectors, like mosquitoes and ticks. Then I had to figure a way of describing all these things that was accessible to the general public. The other difficult piece was finding ways to bring climate change–which can be abstract science–to life and illuminate the harsh reality of what life will be like on a warming planet with stories about real people who were already feeling the effects of climate change here in the U.S. (and in Australia).

 Q Which scientific / public health sources did you find most compelling in writing this book? 

I stumbled across NASA research that indicated that the 1930s Dust Bowls were caused by just a one degree change in the surface temperatures of the oceans. That’s when I realized I had a book because this illuminated the fact that just a one degree change in the weather can have far reaching consequences. There were many public health officials, especially at the CDC, who were very helpful. I think the stories of the heroic doctors in New Orleans–who worked round the clock in unimaginable conditions to keep their patients alive–were incredibly compelling.

Q. What would you like to see happen as a result of your book?

People need to understand the climate change is real, it is happening and it is affecting all of us, even here in the U.S. I’d like to see people become motivated to dramatically reduce their carbon footprints, and get active and get involved to smooth the path to a cleaner, greener, healthier future before it is too late.

Sherrilyn Kenyon Talks Dark-Hunters & Writing Craft at Styxx Book Launch

Last night I joined hundreds of fans of Sherrilyn Kenyon for the launch party of Styxx, the 23rd novel in her Dark-Hunter series. Sherrilyn was in great form in the packed ballroom of theSTYXX Westin Peachtree Plaza on the eve of Dragon*Con.

I fell in love with her Dark-Hunter stories four years ago when I first heard her speak at Dragon*Con — and I’ve been hooked ever since, finishing all of the books in the New York Times’ bestselling series.

With her latest installment, we have the highly anticipated story of Acheron’s brother, Styxx. It should be read in conjunction with Acheron, published in 2008, the story of the Dark-Hunter leader. Lucy Dosch, blogger at Heroes and Heartbreakers, explains the back story of these twin brothers in her post, “Bad Romance: The History of Styxx and Acheron.”

To quickly summarize: Acheron came into being 11,000  ago in the Atlantean pantheon. His mother is the Atlantean Goddess of Destruction Apollymi.  The legend goes that the birth of her son heralded destruction of the Atlantean Pantheon and would bring about the death of all their gods. So the gods ordered Apollymi to kill her unborn son. To save him, she transfers her son into the womb of the Queen Aara, Queen of Didymos, and “twins” him to the son of the King and Queen. In this way tying the two boys’ life forces so they would not destroy him upon his birth.

“The two were born identical to each other, except for one inescapable difference—where Styxx’s eyes are blue, Acheron has the silver swirling eyes of a God, and it was from the moment they opened their eyes that their lives of turmoil began,” writes Dosch.

Sherrilyn and I at the Styxx book signing.

Sherrilyn and I at the Styxx book signing.

Kenyon knows how to world build and put readers into the passionate struggles of her characters better than any author I know. Consider this tantalizing premise for her Dark Hunter characters – immortal and chiseled protectors of humanity who may not get involved with humans. All these physically imposing characters nurse secrets and tragic pasts, who find redemption, usually when they meet their human soul mates.

The Dark-Hunter books are in the process of being adapted into a TV series to air on cable, but Sherilyn was mum on details, joking that television production is a lot like working in government intelligence, where you are constantly evading — never telling the public anything. A co-producer and writer, she’s currently adapting the novels for the screen — not an easily task for a writer who likes to take her time on the page (Styxx is 338 pages in length while Acheron came in at a whopping 737 pages).

“I’m Southern!” she quipped. “Ninety pages- that’s it? Keeping it short is my biggest challenge.”

Writer’s block is not a big issue for Sherrilyn. “I usually walk away from it and within a few minutes I’m back in the chair and it’s resolved somehow,” she said.

There is no typical day to her writing routine, though she told me during a panel two years ago that the noisier it is in hSherrilynStyxxBookLauncher house, the easier it is to write. One thing is clear: she doesn’t sleep much.

“I have a weird sleep pattern,” she said, confessing that in her younger years, she would stay up for three or four days at a time and now that she’s older and a mother, she averages three or four hours of shut eye a night.

“Twenty hours a day I’m doing something writing related,” she said, joking that her nocturnal habit cramps her kids’ style, noting, “It messes with the kids because they can’t sneak out of the house at night.”

Her oldest son, now in college, is working on his first novel. Her advice to new writers is to “never give up” and to trust their instincts — not letting others tell them how to tell their stories.

“Listen to your characters; they won’t steer you wrong.”

Great advice that I’m taking to heart. Is it any wonder Kenyon’s fans are so loyal?


Queries, Pitches, Claire Cook and Other Ah-Ha Moments from the Atlanta Writers Conference



I’ve attended my share of writing conferences over the years, but seldom have I come out of one as jazzed as I did at the conclusion of this weekend’s Atlanta Writers Conference.  
Brainstorming earlier today with an old friend, I realized what I need to do to take my in-progress historical novel to the next level.  It took an outside perspective to help me frame the story. I know I’m on the right track because when I shared my refined concept to an agent, she asked that I send her the first 20 pages when the manuscript is ready. Wow! And that was without a query letter! 
Speaking of query letters, one of this year’s conference attendees can best be described as a query letter ninja. She’s perfected the difficult art of query-letter writing by regularly submitting her draft pitches to websites such as Query Shark. She told me you need a thick skin to withstand the public flaying, but it’s a small price to pay if the outcome was what she experienced: two agents wanting her manuscript.
I loved hearing bestselling author Claire Cook kick off the conference Friday afternoon. This prolific writer of romantic comedies/women’s beach reads has published a book every year since 2000. Her second novel, Must Love Dogs, was made into a film starring Diane Lane and John Cusack.
A firm believer in “reinvention,” Claire recounted her lifelong desire to be a writer that she kept hidden from everyone, including her family. She worked as a teacher for 16 years before having a mid-life wake-up call in her mid-40s.  
“I wrote my first novel in my minivan outside my daughter’s swim practice,”she said.
In June, Claire’s latest book, Time Flies, will be released about two friends who get a new lease on life after taking a road trip to their high school reunion. To promote the book, Claire and the Lake Austin Spa Resort are doing a “reunion weekend”contest where one winner can select a friend for an all-expense-paid spa weekend. She shared the contest as an example of how authors can think outside the box and come up with fun ways to engage readers online.
Building a social platform is critical for writers.  Claire is a big fan of Facebook, once asking her fans what they have in their junk drawer. The answers she received were so interesting that Claire felt compelled to include as many as possible in her book, Best Staged Plans.

Explaining the importance of being disciplined in your writing, Claire credited her ability to release a book every year to her practice of writing two pages a day, every day, seven days a week.  In fact, she won’t let herself go to bed until she’s put in her time writing.

“You don’t have to be brilliant every day; you just have to get those pages done,” she said, adding that the first 100 pages are really about “gutting it out.”  
When working on her novels, she always does the big-picture content editing first followed by page-by-page editing, and finally, line edits. She suggests that writers read their work out loud to catch mistakes.
Concluding her talk, she urged everyone in attendance to build a network, and help one another by forming critique or reading groups.  She said Facebook’s private groups function is a great way to collaborate with others.
Here are just a few of my favorite Claire quips:
“It keeps me honest.” —  on her practice of using a paper calendar to track that she has completed her minimum of two pages of writing every day
“We’re really re-writers. That’s the difference in a book that sells and a book that doesn’t.”  — on the importance of editing
“Nobody knows anything.” – on the changing landscape of publishing
“I’m obsessed with making my craft better.”    
“It’s not all about me.” – on putting rejection into perspective  
“Can we clone you?” – on what the producers on the set of “Must Love Dogs” asked her during film production.
“Be who you really are. People call it brand. I think of it as authenticity.”
“I believe we become writers by being readers.”  
Look for more conference highlights on The Writing Well this week.

The Secrets of ‘Story’ by Writing Coach Margaret South


Twenty-four years ago this month, actresses Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey starred in “Beaches.” Based on a novel by Iris Rainer Dart, “Beaches” traces the 30-year friendship between a free-spirited, struggling Bronx singer and a privileged San Franciscan who later becomes a human rights attorney.
During this fall’s Crossroads Writers Conference, I had the honor to hear a screenwriting talk by Margaret South, one of the producers of “Beaches.” (South founded All Girl Productions with Midler and Bonnie Bruckheimer and also collaborated with Midler on the film, “For the Boys.”)
Margaret South
“My involvement in screenplay writing comes from a passion for working with writers. I like helping writers tell their stories,” says South, noting that her upbringing in Catholic school helped make her an excellent reader and writer – skills that she was able to translate into a successful career in Hollywood at a time when there were ample opportunities for women.
Now, a writing coach and entrepreneur focused on helping writers understand the secrets of Story, South also has shared her talents with the next generation through her Kids Talk Story program. The program, which provides free curriculum to creative writing K-12 teachers and parents nationwide, began in 2007 to enable students to discover and write their own stories.
According to South, one of the scariest aspects of writing a screenplay or novel is how easy it is to become disoriented and lose your way, as you ask yourself repeatedly, “What am I trying to say?” There are some guideposts that can help you along the way.
  • First, learn the basic archetypes in all stories.
  • Second, understand the basic story structure.
  • Third, realize that all stories fundamentally are about one thing:  love.
It’s All About Love 
“What all human beings want is love,” Margaret notes. “Every screenplay, every story is about love. Every story is a love story between two human beings who are experiencing a profound connection. That’s what we’re here for – to make those connections.  So, when you write a love story in your film, your readers are going to engage with that — they have a vested interest to see that work out.”
So, where do writers go wrong with their screenplays, the majority of which don’t get beyond a cursory review before being rejected?
“Most of the people go wrong for a lot of different reasons – they try to write what you think you want to read.  You can say your character cares about other people, but I want you to prove it – show me what your characters do. Don’t tell me a character is angry; show me they are angry. I can decide based on what they do. Movies aren’t about dialogue – it’s what the characters do on the screen.”
She adds,  “Tell me something really interesting; something I haven’t seen before. Tell me something I care about. I want to be loved; I want to love. Show conflict.”
South offers 12 basic lessons for writing screenplays free on her website, From her web page, you can download her story checklist, her structure worksheet or read her blog. I captured a snapshot of some of South’s tried-and-true pointers below.
1. Have only one protagonist.
“Do yourself a favor and don’t write an ensemble piece because when you write a screenplay, you want it to get your screenplay made into a movie and the people who get movies made are movie stars, and they want to be in every scene. They don’t want to share the stage with everybody else.”
 2. Make your character care about other people (it’s not about being likable).
“If your main character can demonstrate that they care about somebody else, then your reader is going to care about your character.”
3.  Make your protagonist flawed.
“Your character is going to make mistakes because your character is a human being. We like that about people. We like watching them go wrong. I they make a mistake, they keep trying. They never give up.”  
4. Make your character capable of change.
“You need a character who is capable of change – capable of learning, changing and growing because that is the human condition….Characters move forward in time and they learn things. When you write a screenplay you are really studying the human condition: what makes us do the things we do?”
5. Write an equally powerful antagonist.
“That’s where you get your balance, so that your viewers never going to know who is going to win.  You hope the protagonist is going to win. That’s what we’re always looking for in a screenplay – the dynamic – the balance is very even.
6.  Put your protagonist through hell.
“You’ve got to throw rocks at your protagonist; you’ve got to make it really, really difficult. Why? Life is really difficult. By facing obstacles, overcoming obstacles, facing more obstacles, and overcoming more obstacles, your character will grow, live and change.”
Story Structure — Boiling Everything Down to its Essence
South notes that as screenplay writers, we have 110 pages to set a character in motion and have them go on this journey that profoundly changes their life.  She then broke down the classic three-act structure (South has the second act divided into A and B):  
  • Act 1 – You establish your main character in their ordinary world and then have an inciting incident – something happens out of the blue that changes the protagonist’s life forever.  You only get one inciting incident.
  • Act 2A –Your main character decides to pursue a course of action and encounters obstacles.
  • Act 2B – Your character crosses the threshold from the ordinary world into another world at the beginning of Act 2B and goes into the “dark night of the soul.” “There is more danger; there is no hope; death is all around. But then your character has an epiphany and realizes where she went wrong,” explains South.
  • Act 3 – Your character takes what she has learned and returns home to the “ordinary world” with new knowledge and an enlightened view.  
Concluding her session, South urged us not to get discouraged or lose heart during the creative storytelling process.
“For me, that’s what writing is: it’s a process of discovery,” observes South, who admits she’s seen it played out time and again in the classroom and in her career working with professional writers, directors and actors. “It’s just part of what we do — we share who we are through the art of telling the story.”

The Inspirational Force of Chris Baty


Adam Mansbach and Chris Baty (right) at the Crossroads Writers Conference Saturday.
Coming off this weekend’s Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, Georgia, I feel a renewed commitment to finish my historical novel.
That’s what a weekend like this does – mingling with established and aspiring writers alike, and connecting with a community of people who share my same passion for storytelling.
Crossroads organizers asked headliner Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), to inspire and motivate. By all accounts he delivered. I can see how his energy and enthusiasm have ignited people around the world every November to tackle the impossible – writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch.
Baty recalls how the idea started small in 1999 when he invited a group of friends to write a novel in a month.
Seeing NaNoWriMo Grow from 20 to 250,000
Twenty people joined his challenge. Some of them came together each night after work to write. By week three “something interesting started happening” — these books “started to come alive.” That moment when energy really starts to flow into a writing project for the first time, “is really electrifying,” Baty says.
At the end of the month six of them had crossed the 50,000-word threshold.
“It changed the way I saw my potential and it changed the way I saw the potential of everyone around me because I knew if we could do it, anybody could do it,” Baty says. “I saw in fact that novels aren’t written by novelists; they’re written by every day people who give themselves permission to write novels. Nothing was the same.”
The following year 21 people grew to 140, then 5,000 and then 40,000. In 2011, 250,000 adults in one month wrote three billion words of fiction. Baty says I50 NaNoWriMo writers have sold their manuscripts to traditional publishers, and four became New York Times’ bestsellers, including Canadian Sara Gruen, whose debut novel, Water for Elephants, was made into a film in 2011 (Read my film review).
Baty turned NaNoWriMo into a non-profit six years ago. The organization employs a staff of seven and offers summer programs and a Young Writers Program that offers classrooms free creative writing curriculum workbooks, stickers, and buttons.
“Last year we had 2,000 classrooms take these free resources,” he says.
In January, Baty, decided to leave the organization he has nurtured for the last 15 years to set off to be a full-time writer.
“It feels great to feel unchained. No more getting up at 5 a.m. to sneak in that writing time – no more of those steady paychecks to hold us back,” he said, inspiring laughter from the audience. “It has been a really adventure-filled, educational, fantastic nine months.”
Baty admits he’s had moments where he’s felt on top of the world and moments when he’s wondered, “What the hell have I done?”
Embarking for the Open Sea
He takes comfort from an old quote by John Shedd (Salt from My Attic, 1928):  “A ship in the harbor is safe. That is not what ships are built for.”
“I spend the last 15 years of National Novel Writing month watching thousands of people get inspired by their books and decide to make writing a more central part of their life, which means they are guiding their ships out of the harbor – into the open ocean, and I’ve been monitoring their progress from shore. One thing they all shared – they heard this clear, mysterious, sometimes maddening call to sail out and meet that adventure on the horizon. The fact that we are all here today means we also have heard that call.”
Packing Four Indispensable Items
From watching all these ships set sail over the years, Baty says the most successful have remembered to pack four important things: 
  1. A deadline.  “To me, having a great deadline for your book project is more important than having a good idea for your book.  It’s true because the human imagination is one of the most formidable imaginations on earth. Given the right amount of prodding it will take this half-assed concept and turn it into something dazzling. But sadly, the human imagination, left to its devices, will happily spend its entire life eating Cheetos® and watching TV…Ultimately, we have to be as creative with our deadlines as we are with our books.”
  2. Momentum.  “In 1687 Isaac Newton wrote this amazing book for writers. The book was called, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. This book contains these two natural laws you remember from middle school – the first one, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So, from watching so many of my novel revisions remain so peacefully at rest the last decade, I can attest that Isaac Newton was really onto something. Sometimes projects stall out. Once your book does achieve a state of rest, it’s hard to get it moving again. The great thing about writing is that small steps, taken several days in a row, have a way of turning into very big strides. It’s really not speed; it’s about momentum.”
  3.  An appreciation of messes.  “I think our job as writers – especially at this point in our careers – is to make as many messes as possible. Messes we make on first drafts – unholy nightmares, grammatical car crashes, flat dialogue, one-dimensional characters, clichéd plots. Then there are messes on the business level where we are experimenting sometimes successfully and sometimes less successfully on doing things like building our platforms, leveraging social media, trying to stay on top of all these changing technologies in the publishing industry.  In the pursuit of making writing a more central part of our lives, we will make mistakes and we have to forgive ourselves. Because, if we are making mistakes, we are learning. And by trying and failing we are growing by leaps and bounds as writers.”   
  4. Faith. “We need a big truck full of faith. We need faith that our books don’t suck on some monstrous level. We need faith that we are getting better over time and we need faith that our projects will eventually matter to someone. As writers, we are observers. And we’ve observed that it’s hard to make a living writing. We realize that this dream of being a writer is impractical — maybe an impossible one. But I will tell you as someone who has watched hundreds and thousands of kids, teens and adults write a book they never dreamed they could write… that success is often a lot closer than you know. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my time running National Novel Writing Month is that everyone has so much more in them than they realize and that when we make the time and when we give ourselves permission to follow our inspirations and our impractical dreams, we have power to do unimaginably great things.”
Baty concluded his remarks by saying that when times get tough, he relies on the faith of his friends and family to pull him through. “I hope for today you will let me carry your faith for you and you will believe what I tell you that your story is important; that your voice matters. And that there is someone out there who has waited their entire life to read the book you are writing right now…Those readers are ready. Let’s go give them something amazing.”